By Thalif Deen*
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 25 2019 (IPS) – After an exhaustive study of modern day slavery, the Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO) concluded there are over 40 million people who are victims of slavery, including 25 million in forced labour and 15 million in forced marriages – with at least 71 percent of them comprising women and girls.
The current figures are reportedly even higher since the release of the 2017 landmark study titled ‘Global Estimates of Modern Slavery,’ which was a collaborative effort with the Walk Free Foundation, in partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The Chicago-based Safe Haven Network has described human trafficking as “the largest international crime industry– exceeding that of illegal drugs and arms trafficking.”
The United States outlawed the importation of African slaves by an act of Congress back in 1807. But it took another 58 years before there was a complete ban on slavery in 1865 following the end of the Civil War.
In the US, modern day slavery and racial discrimination are two sides of the same coin—and racism has raised its ugly head under the nationalistic banner of “white supremacy” under the current demagogic Trump administration.
Still, despite historic milestones, slavery is still prevalent in a variety of disguises—including human trafficking, child soldiers, forced and early child marriages, domestic servitude and migrant labour—both in the global South (read: developing nations) and the global North (read: Western industrialized nations).
The New York Times ran a frontpage story Feb 23 about a billionaire owner of a famous American football team who was charged on two counts of soliciting sex as part of a wide-ranging investigation into prostitution and suspected human trafficking in the US state of Florida.
The bottom line is: modern slavery is very much alive– and thriving– both in the world’s poorest and richest countries.
Karolin Seitz, programme officer on corporate accountability, business and human rights at Global Policy Forum based in Bonn, told IPS that modern slavery still persists both in countries of the global South and also in countries of the global North.
Especially migrant workers, may it be on orange plantations in Italy or Qatar’s construction sector, are at risk of coerced into exploitative and forced labor.
She said experience has shown that voluntary commitments by multinational companies are not enough.
Some countries, like the UK with its Anti-Slavery Act, Australia with its Modern Slavery Act or France with its loi de vigilance, have come to the conclusion that only binding rules are appropriate, Seitz added.
As the recent World Health Organization (WHO) report on the health of refugees and migrants in the European Region has shown, migrant workers are more likely to work long hours, in high-risk jobs and without necessary safety measures, and to avoid complain¬ing about hazardous conditions.
Those affected by trafficking or forced labor, said Seitz, are often not recognized by the authorities and therefore have no access to justice. Affected individuals can rarely enforce their claims to pay and compensation.
To eliminate competitive advantages based on modern slavery, human trafficking and environmental pollution, human rights due diligence must go beyond national borders, declared Seitz.
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), told IPS that inequality and modern slavery go hand in hand for millions of people.
“Modern slavery is everywhere, from the kafala system in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; from cattle ranches in Paraguay to fisheries in Thailand and the Philippines to agriculture in Italy,” she noted.
“The supply chains of clothes, food and services consumed globally are trained with forced labour, with migrant workers and indigenous people particularly vulnerable to exploitation,” said Burrow, a former President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) (2000–2010).
She said ending modern slavery is possible.
“It’s a matter of political will to deliver legislative changes and freedom of association, which will be driven by the exposure of scandal and campaigning from workers, consumers and unions. Governments needs to stare down corporate pressure, people demand it.”
Dima Dabbous, Director of Equality Now’s Middle East/North Africa (MENA) office, told IPS the ILO estimates that there are 1.6 million migrant women in the Middle East living under kafala sponsorship.
Situated in the Gulf States, Jordan and Lebanon, these workers are particularly vulnerable because they are located within private homes doing domestic jobs such as cleaner, housekeeper or nanny, and are excluded from local labor regulations.
They are bound to one employer and are unable to resign, move jobs, or leave the country without consent from their sponsor, who is able to threaten deportation if their employee questions the terms of their contract, she added.
“This imbalance in power relations has created a system whereby employers are able to exploit immigrant household workers with little risk of consequence”.
As a result, mistreatment such as restricting movement, withholding payment, and physical and sexual abuse are widespread. In extreme cases women have been murdered, said Dabbous, a former director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World.
In Lebanon, she said, previous lobbying by local and international NGOs has led to some improvements in the type of labor contract that regulates the work of domestic migrant women, such as imposing a period of weekly rest, employers to pay the wage on a regular basis, helpers who are abused complain to the authorities.
However, none of these “improvements” have made any difference because the new contract was not translated into languages spoken by domestic helpers and was not enforced by the Lebanese government.
“Women have continued having their passports confiscated by their employers, are still being denied a day off per week, and have little possibility of complaining about or reporting abuse.”
She said the ILO and other international NGOs (INGOs) should continue their advocacy around the kafala system that binds these migrant women to their employers like slaves.
The international community should also support the local NGOs that work on abolishing or replacing the kafala system.
These NGOs remain very few and underfunded. “The problem is compounded by existing racist attitudes in the Middle East region regarding migrant domestic workers, and this also needs addressing,” said Dabbous.
Seitz of the Global Policy Forum said while still facing shortcomings and difficulties in their implementation, the laws, however, require big companies to publish statements outlining the risk of slavery in their supply chains and actions taken to address this.
Other countries still believe in voluntary measures. The German National Action Plan for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights lacks any liability, also because of the massive lobbying of business associations.
In order to close the gaps and set common and robust standards globally, states should support the current process at the UN Human Rights Council to establish an internationally binding treaty to regulate transnational and other business enterprises with respect to human rights, she said.
It should require states to establish mandatory human rights due diligence for its companies, to hold companies legally accountable for breaching their due diligence in case of human rights violations and to remove barriers to access to justice for victims of human rights violations by transnational corporations, said Seitz.
Burrow of the ITUC said globally, work is more insecure with a predominance of short-term contracts, and both informal work and modern slavery are growing.
Inequality of income and between those who can access decent work drives people to work under exploitative conditions, and the inequality of the relationship between employer and worker stops you being able to exercise your rights.
“Where wages are low and there is no decent work, where there are no unions to represent workers’ and defend their rights – we see the conditions which lead to modern slavery”, she noted.
The Fight Inequality Alliance of social movements, NGOs and trade unions are deeply concerned by rising inequality and modern slavery.
“A minimum wage on which you can live, decent work, and rights to form unions and collectively bargaining are key to ending the crisis of inequality and ending slavery.”
For migrant workers, recruitment fees from unscrupulous employers trap workers into bonded labour. Migrant workers, many of whom are vulnerable to conditions of slavery can rate the recruitment agencies and companies with the ITUC’s platform.
She pointed out that UN Special Rapporteurs can help expose the scandal of modern slavery, the joint condemnation by four special rapporteurs of Ireland’s migrant fishing workers scheme adds pressure to the legal cases taken by trade unions.
Lasting change will take the rule of law. Due diligence and transparency is the key to ending modern slavery in supply chains.
Where corporations take responsibility for due diligence and consequently make their supply chains transparent, it is possible to establish grievance procedures that can facilitate remedy of any violations of rights at work – from forced labour to paying below the minimum wage.
She pointed out that new mandated due diligence legislation is being adopted in France with other countries including Germany, the Netherlands preparing to follow.
This IPS coverage on human trafficking is supported by the Riana Group.
*UN Bureau Chief and Regional Director IPS North America, has been covering the U.N. since the late 1970s. A former deputy news editor of the Sri Lanka Daily News, he was a senior editorial writer on the Hong Kong daily, The Standard. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org